Daniel Lee is a very commercial Hong Kong director. I was real disappointed with the abysmal Dragon Squad (Dragon Heat in the U.S.) but he seemed to at least have gotten his footing with “Three Kingdoms: Resurrection of the Dragon
” with a fun, stylish Wuxia affair. Well, this time around Daniel Lee brings action superstar Donnie Yen (IP MAN
) to mainstream audiences with “14 BLADES”. Lee is a master of very flashy, showy filmmaking that is just an exercise of style over substance so if you are talking action then this movie delivers. However, the film is obviously meant to have been inspired by the Shaw Brothers classic, from this viewpoint, the film falls short. It presents some routine drama and uninspired dialogue; but it does satisfy if you're only after the ACTION.
Qinglong (Donnie Yen) is the supreme warrior of the JINYIWEI; the emperor’s elite cadre of assassins. He is also the wielder of the fabled box of “14 Blades” that has 8 instruments for interrogation, 5 for murder and combat with the last one for suicide. But when the Jinyiwei are betrayed by Qinglong’s adoptive brother (Qi Yuwu) and a mission goes awry, Qinglong finds himself on the run as he seeks aid from a band called “Justice Escorts”. He finds himself attached to the bandleader’s daughter Qiao Hua (Zhao Wei, Shaolin Soccer) as he seeks a resolution to their mission. There is also a mysterious woman called Tuo Tuo (former Miss Hong Kong, Kate Tsui) who seems to equal the fighting skills of Qinglong himself and who wants him dead…
I’ve always figured Daniel Lee to be a mediocre storyteller, I’ve never expected this movie to have a complex plot or great characterization. Lee made his name as a visually stylish action director and he does not even try to pretend otherwise. The film’s plot carries the same formulas as in brotherhood, betrayal and vengeance. There is nothing intricate in the film’s premise, and Lee does keep things simple. I really don’t mind a simple execution but I do think that he had several missed opportunities. The viewer is supposed to believe that the Jinyiwei are bad ass warriors, but never gives us a more solid groundwork as to why. Yes, we are treated to some flashbacks where they trained as children and forced to kill one another (ala Azumi
) but the development of this angle never reached any supposed narrative significance. The screenplay feels a little rushed and never gives the viewer a chance to settle into the film’s main premise.
The characters are also pretty much filled with the trappings of Chinese commercial epics. I guess I was a little bothered that the direction abandoned the story’s potential for emotion and keeps everything at a fast pace. This wouldn’t bother me, but the script is also uneven as Zhao Wei is given the spotlight to inject some drama (she does actually) but it doesn't go anywhere and it all felt like canned melodrama in the end. Zhao is a great actress, it was a good choice to have her around, but she can’t really do anything if the script is flawed; the romantic angle was explored but it never reached narrative impact. The film has a lot of action sequences as Lee uses the spiffy fight scenes to hide the film’s weaknesses.
We all know Donnie Yen can kick major ass and he does what he does best with the aid of the spiffy “14 Blades” that includes a case that seems to channel “Desperado” and a wire gadget to make like “Batman” almost. I liked the film’s gimmicks and I really liked the fact that the film’s main villain to combat Qinglong is a woman; it is refreshing to see the bad ass Yen be put in a position that he can lose to a woman. Qinglong’s box of trck blades are matched by Tuo’s flexible yet lethal whips. It is a sexy Kate Tsui (reminds me of "Bride With White Hair") who does it and while I thought the fights were a little too exaggerated, it did sell me the idea of a duel between her and Yen. At first glance, I thought it would be a Sammo Hung (who does a guest appearance)-Donnie Yen final fight but I was pleasantly surprised to see sexy Tsui take on Yen. Tsui may have done it with the aid of mystical powers (or CGI) but she manages to hold her own.
There are also some fight scenes with classic Shaw Bros. star Chen Kuan-Tai (who uses old-school moves) and Taiwanese actor Wu Chun gets to swoon women with his “Judge” character who channels some Johnny Depp but ends up looking like a 'metrosexual pirate'. The fights are entertaining but they felt too gimmicky just to sell the film. The fights are of course aided by wire work and some CGI, but they are fun to see anyway. I guess with a movie with this much eye candy style, Donnie Yen’s presence as a highly skilled fighter isn’t exactly needed. Yen does try to do some legit acting, but we all know that he isn’t that good an actor. I like Donnie Yen, but that wig on his head did bother me a little in this movie.
I guess “14 BLADES” just didn’t cut it in successfully mixing up drama, emotion and high-flying action. The action is real cool and entertaining to see, but Lee’s missteps in direction just felt so obvious that the film really felt like one of your usual, standard commercial Chinese martial arts flick. I felt like the action was there to just delay the film’s resolution and the plot didn’t make the action scenes. But the film does have its positives, and if you aren’t looking for anything intricate in storytelling, the movie can prove to be a good diversion. After all, it is always fun to see Donnie Yen kick some major butt.
Recommended! [3 ½ - Stars]